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News and Resources

Coastal Bays Receive C+ on Report Card - December 6, 2015

                Every year the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, in association with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and other state, local, and federal agencies, create and publish the Coastal Bays report card.

                This report card is similar to school report cards; each of the five coastal bays and the St. Martins River are given a letter grade based on various criteria and then the overall health of the coastal bays watershed is assessed using those grades. The grades are not based on pristine conditions, but rather livability for fish, crabs, shellfish, and other aquatic animals and plants.

                For this past year of 2014, the coastal bays had an overall health rating of C+, which is holding steady from the 2013 grade of C+. While there are certain water quality conditions that are relatively good, there are still major problems that need to be improved to protect the health of the bays and the local economy they support.

                The health of each embayment; Sinepuxent, Chincoteague, Assawoman, Isle of Wight, and Newport bays along with the St. Martin River are each graded using multiple indicators. These indicators include the total nitrogen and phosphorous in the water, chlorophyll a levels, dissolved oxygen levels, seagrass coverage, and hard clam populations. These indicators help us assess the general water quality for the bays and rivers which allows us to create a grading scale to evaluate the health of the individual and coastal bay areas as a whole.

                St. Martin River had the lowest grade, a D+, however it is not technically a coastal bay but a river. St. Martin River had the lowest scores for phosphorus, chlorophyll a, nitrogen and seagrass coverage in the entire coastal bays watershed but had moderate dissolved oxygen levels. St. Martin River has seen significant declines in overall health over the past few years and continues to be the worst area for overall watershed health.

                The coastal bay with the worst overall health grade was Newport Bay. Newport Bay did score better this year, with a C-, than last year, when it got a D+. Dissolved oxygen, nitrogen, and chlorophyll a levels all improved; however, hard clam populations diminished. Hard clam populations and seagrass coverage scored poorly while everything else maintained a moderate score.

                Assawoman and Isle of Wight bays both received C ratings, indicating that while they were not in horrible shape they could still use improvements. The Isle of Wight Bay stayed relatively healthy from 2013 to 2014. There were significant improvements in dissolved oxygen levels; however, these were offset by increases in phosphorous and nitrogen levels and a decrease in seagrass coverage and hard clam populations. Unfortunately, Assawoman Bay saw continued degradation from 2013 to 2014. While there were significant improvements in chlorophyll a, these were offset by increases in phosphorous and nitrogen levels and a decrease in seagrass coverage.

                Chincoteague Bay received another B- rating, keeping its score steady for the past three years. There were some small declines in dissolved oxygen levels and and increase in overall nitrogen; however, there were major improvements in seagrass coverage. Unfortunately this area has consistently had the lowest hard clam population in the coastal bays region over the past few years, possibly due to reoccurring brown tides.

                Sinepuxent Bay received a B rating this year, the best score of any embayment in the coastal bays watershed. Unlike all the other embayments, there was not a single poor or very poor score for any water quality parameter in the Sinepuxent. nitrogen and chlorophyll a were both excellent, phosphorus and hard clams scored as good, which were improvements from 2013, and dissolved oxygen and seagrasses were moderate.

                One of the biggest improvements we have seen this past year was an increase in overall seagrass coverage. Seagrass and other Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) is extremely important in our bays as they provide habitat, food, sediment control and more. Currently, seagrass coverage is only 36% of our current goal for all the bays. The overall increase in seagrass coverage was mostly due to an increase of nearly 3,000 acres of seagrasses in Chincoteague, with smaller increases in Sinepuxent and Newport Bays. This was partially offset by decreases in seagrasses in Assawoman and Isle of Wight bays which lost between 80 to 100% of their seagrass coverage.

                Another small improvement was seen in the hard clam populations of the northern bays. Isle of Wight continued to have good levels, while Sinepuxent saw an increase of hard clam populations, with densities increasing from 46% in 2013 to 62% in 2014. Chincoteague and Newport Bays remained at the lowest densities of any bay and were less than 20% of historic levels.

                Among all the great work that goes into keeping our coastal bays clean and healthy, one major project this year that stood out was the addition of several dredge islands. Most of the dredge islands were built on top of footprints from old islands, which were created from sand movement and shifting after the opening of the Ocean City inlet. These new dredge islands were created using dredge spoils from the commercial harbor to help provide much needed habitat for many species of wildlife, in particular colonial nesting shorebirds.

                If you would like to check out the Coastal Bays report card, it is available on the Maryland Coastal Bays Program website, www.mdcoastalbays.org, under Coastal Bays Report Card on the right hand side.

Harrison Jackson is the Education Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.



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